Hollywood in the early part of the 20th century was a tough place. The work was hard and the conditions hardly up to OSHA standards. But, for those lucky enough to gain fame and fortune, the fun and play was just as rough and tumble. Roscoe Arbuckle (he hated being called “Fatty”) was the comic darling of the Keystone lot in the early teens. He and Mable Normand delighted the public with their adorable antics. Before Charlie Chaplin, before Buster Keaton and before Harold Lloyd, it was Fatty that tickled the moviegoers’ fancy. Arbuckle eventually left Keystone to produce his own films.
By all accounts, Roscoe was a lovely man, kind and well-liked by his peers. Even his ex-wife, actress Minta Durfee, proclaimed him the nicest man in the world. His friendship with Keaton was rock solid and he served as a mentor to both Chaplin and, much later, to Bob Hope (encouraging Hope to seek his fortune in motion pictures). If Roscoe had a fatal flaw, it was his love for alcohol and an addiction to morphine (as the result of a serious leg injury). Those flaws didn’t stand in his way when showing generosity to his friends, which lead him to plan a fun getaway to San Francisco to blow off some steam on September 5, 1921.
The plan seemed like a good one. San Francisco was often used by the movie stars as a place to let their hair down. So, Roscoe rented several rooms at the St. Francis Hotel for a group of his friends, who were all invited to a party. A little Labor Day R&R with alcohol and women was just what the doctor ordered. But, in the midst of the partying, something went horribly wrong.
While the guests partied, one guest lay writhing in pain in one of Roscoe’s rooms. Virginia Rappe was a model, sometime actress and girlfriend of director Henry Lehrman. She was also a notorious party girl who, as they used to say, was no better than she should be. Virginia, who was seriously ill before she even came to the party, was admitted two days later to the hospital, where she died on September 9. Her friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, told Virginia’s doctor that the would-be actress–whose given cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder–had been raped by Arbuckle.
Here’s what happened:
* Virginia Rappe, already suffering from and poor health due–in part–from too much drinking and too many abortions, became seriously ill at the party. The hotel doctor determined that her condition was caused by overconsumption of alcohol.
* Roscoe, among others, tried to help her and tried to cool her overheated body with ice cubes and a bath.
*Maude Delmon said that Virginia told her Roscoe “hurt her,” which meant rape. Delmont, a known professional correspondent for blackmailers who had been targeted by the police for fraud, bigamy, extortion, and racketeering, was not even present in the room when Virginia became ill.
Here’s what the public was told:
Fatty Arbuckle, host of a wildly out-of-control party, savagely raped and caused the death of poor Virginia Rappe with his massive weight. Not only did he rape her, but the beast also abused her with either a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle.
On September 11, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested for the murder of Virginia Rappe.
For two excruciating trials, Roscoe’s name and reputation were slandered while the prosecution paraded liar after liar before the jury. The wild partying ways of the the movie colony was exposed and morality groups called for Roscoe’s execution. Both trials resulted in a hung jury. Roscoe Arbuckle was finally cleared and found innocent at a third trial. At the end of the mercifully swift third trial, a verdict was rendered in just six minutes, with the jury foreman reading this statement: “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him… there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.” District Attorney Matthew Brady had pressured witnesses to lie under oath and it was revealed that Maude Delmont was attempting to extort money from Arbuckle’s attorneys. Exoneration, however, came too late. Both his career and his spirit were ruined. William Randolph Hearst made hay of the scandal and made a fortune off of these lies in the process. He never apologized to Roscoe for gleefully destroying him. The public and Hollywood turned their back on the man who had brought joy to so many. He was innocent and he was a pariah.
Roscoe did have some loyal friends. Buster Keaton stood by him to the end and tried to give him work when no one else would. Buster, by the way, was asked to attend the party at the St. Francis that fateful weekend, but was unable to go due to other plans (plans for which he was eternally grateful). Roscoe turned to alcohol in a big way, but still managed to find work, directing low budget films under the pseudonym William Goodrich (“will be good”). By all accounts, he was a broken man. Things finally seemed to be looking up in 1933. He had been co-starring in short comedies for Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone branch, and on June 29, 1933 he was signed by Warners for a feature-length film. But resurrection was not to come. Roscoe died of a heart attack that same night. Some may agree that cause of death was a broken heart.
The Arbuckle scandal, along with the scandal concerning the mysterious death of director William Desmond Taylor, put the morality (or immorality) of Hollywood in the spotlight for all time. For a deeper dive into the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal, check out the book Frame-Up, The Untold Story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle by Andy Edmonds.
Said Louise Brooks, who–at the tail end of her career–found herself playing a part in the cheaply-made Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931), directed by Arbuckle under his William Goodrich alias:
“He made no attempt to direct this picture. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career. But it was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this broken-down picture, and to find my director was the great Roscoe Arbuckle. Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer—a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut—really delightful.”
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page.